Mary Robison 1949–
American short story writer and novelist.
The following entry provides criticism of Robison's work through 1991. For further information on her life and works, see CLC, Volume 42.
Robison is considered a primary proponent of the so-called "minimalist" school of short fiction, which includes such writers as Ann Beattie, Raymond Carver, and Frederick Barthelme, among others. In her stories seemingly mundane yet absurd events are illuminated by a terse, laconic style that often relies on humor. Commended for her skill with dialogue, Robison is admired for her keen perception of the idiosyncrasies of contemporary American life. Remarking on Robison's career, a commentator for the Virginia Quarterly Review stated: "Acetylene bright, hip as any talk show host, greatly gifted, and flaky enough in her writing to be a role model for new talents … [Robison] has written some of the finest stories of our time, stories which will stand the test of time."
Born January 14, 1949, in Washington, D.C., Robison is the daughter of an attorney and a psychologist. She attended Johns Hopkins University, where she earned a master's degree in 1977. A 1980 Guggenheim fellow and the recipient of other grants, Robison has taught English at Harvard University since 1981 and was named writer-in-residence at various universities during the mid-1980s. Her stories have appeared in such periodicals as Esquire and the New Yorker and were first collected in Days (1979). Following the publication of the novel Oh! in 1981, Robison wrote An Amateur's Guide to the Night (1983), her second collection of short fiction. In an interview she claimed that the combination of teaching and writing "doesn't work at all," so her writing career took a five-year hiatus before the publication of Believe Them, another short story collection, in 1988. Robison's latest book is the short novel Subtraction (1991).
The stories in Days are full of characters who are apparently oblivious to both the bizarre and ordinary incidents of their lives. This collection is marked by a deadpan narrative tone that reflects the languor in the characters' lives. Oh!, Robison's first novel, centers on the internal dynamics of the Clevelands—an eccentric, wealthy family of alcoholics and drug abusers—and comically portrays the absurdity and alienation prevalent in contemporary American life. Notable among the stories featured in An Amateur's Guide to the Night are "The Wellman Twins," which concerns the vicious honesty shared by the twins, and "Yours," in which a dying man and his wife carve pumpkins. Each of the stories in Amateur's Guide are set in the Midwestern United States and feature such distinctly American venues as fast-food restaurants and convenience stores. Believe Them juxtaposes several vignettes illuminating the foibles of the upper middle class with tales revealing the surrealistic dimensions of ordinary events. The novel Subtraction is a love story involving an irresponsible husband and his devoted wife.
Robison's fiction is often discussed in terms of "minimalism," a recent trend in American letters characterized by a pronounced emphasis on perception, visuality, and attention to minute detail. Described by Anne Tyler as "stripped, incisive," Robison's writing style has earned praise for its sparseness and innovative technique. Art Seidenbaum wrote that Robison "plays with words and people in a spare, almost ascetic way." This acclaimed detachment from her work, however, has also provoked persistent criticism. Larry McCaffery observed that Robison's "restraint and refusal to supply her incidents with a more conventionally dramatic shape occasionally produces stories that evoke a sense of 'So what?'" Yet most critics have applauded Robison's dexterity with dialogue and her ability to convince the reader that her characters and situations are indeed real. Others have detected the influence of television media in Robison's fiction, often likening it to turning the television on and off with a program in progress. "She is a master of line and texture," commented Joseph Coates, "who gets maximum information out of the glittering and intentionally deceptive surfaces of our image-dominated culture." Richard Eder concluded that Robison "is a powerful writer, and her best books have used a disciplined minimalism to emit, by constriction, some powerfully shaped emotions."